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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Root Cellars And Spring Houses

A root cellar is any storage location that uses the natural cooling, insulating, and humidifying properties of the earth. Back in the days before temperature control, root cellars provided food storage using the earth as the temperature controller. Root vegetables needed a cool, dry place so they would last longer. Potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots, parsnips, winter squash are some of the vegetables that need a temperature of 32º to 40º F and a humidity level of 85 to 95 percent. Apples have a tendency to emit ethylene gas, which causes problems for potatoes stored nearby, and will also make any exposed carrots or other root crops bitter. So cabbages were often pulled up and stuck back into the hole in the ground but upside down. Then hay would have been piled on top to further insulate the cabbage. Fruit, like apples, could have been stored in a separate fruit cellar. Cooler temperatures slow the release of ethylene gas and stops the grow of microorganisms that cause decomposition. The humidity level prevents loss of moisture and the resulting withering. Many root cellars were also used as storage for canned goods, milk and dairy products, wine, cider, cured meats (salted or smoked for preservation), grains (in sealed containers to prevent bugs), nuts, pumpkins, onions and and dried beans. The cellars kept food from freezing during the winter and cool during the summer months to prevent spoilage. Today we have refrigerators and coolers and temperature controlled houses. These cellars were usually dug into the side of a hill or a pit was dug deep enough and a shed roof put on top. The earth was the insulating factor. A good root cellar has shelves, some higher than others, and some closer to the air vents. Placing the ethylene producers up high and nearer the exit vents has a tendency to move harmful gases away from produce stored on the floor below. Many root crops are also regularly stored in boxes of loose soil or sawdust, further insulating them from their neighbors’ emissions. Some produce, like cabbages and onions, often emit odors that can taint the flavors of other vegetables, as well as fruits, so finding high, remote corners for these pungent items is a good idea too.

One of the key control features of a root cellar is the set of air vents that allow air to enter and exit the cellar. These vents not only allow a greater amount of temperature adjustment than available to a static space, but the air circulation can also be a valuable tool to deal with the ethylene gases and odors produced by a mixed assortment of fruits and vegetables. At least one inlet vent and one outlet vent should be included. Inlet vents should be placed low, and exit vents placed high. This is conducive to a nice, passive air flow through the root cellar. The outsides of the vents should all be sealed where they enter the structure with packed cloth, expanding foam or tight rubber gaskets. The vents themselves should be equipped with closing and opening valves, and it is convenient to make these valves operable from outside the root cellar. Closing vents in freezing weather and during summer heat. Use metal wire mesh to over vent openings to prevent rodents from getting into the root cellar via the vents. Also using rat traps, glue boards, rat poison or repellers to keep rodents away from the food.

Shelves should include some bins with wire mesh bottoms for air circulation. It's important to regularly check your root cellar and remove any spoiled, rotten or moldy vegetables as it can cause the others to spoil quickly.

In constructing a root cellar, you want to keep it from any leakage or drainage problem since rain and water will ruin a root cellar. Make sure the door of the root cellar is in the shade (since that is one area not insulated with the dirt). Any wood should be a cedar or other rot resistant wood (not chemically treated as it can affect the taste of the vegetables). Spread a 1-foot-deep bed of three-quarter-inch-diameter crushed stone beneath the excavated site for drainage. You will want at least 1-2' of soil, with the ultimate being 10' of soil, on all sides. Concrete or concrete block makes for a good wall maker. I saw where some use concrete culverts and even septic tanks.

If you have a basement that is insulated by the dirt, you can use your basement as a root cellar.

What would you do if you didn't have a refrigerator? How would you store milk? If you lived on a farm, you were probably dealing with not just a gallon of milk at a time but milking a cow(s) morning and night. What would you do with leftovers and meat? In the time before refrigeration and before plastic and airtight containers, people would use a spring cellar or spring house or milk house. A spring house was a building built over an underground spring or beside a creek in order to catch the cold water and use it for refrigeration. If it was an underground spring, you could also use it for drinking and cleaning water instead of a well. You built a small shed in order to keep debris and animals out of it. It was best if it was built with some dirt insulation around 3 sides. There would be shelves inside for the buckets, crocks, barrels that were used to keep stuff cool in the spring house or cold in the actual water. Because they are damp places, they tended to rot any wood and is the reason why there aren't that many spring houses left. Once you could have a refrigerator in your kitchen, why use a spring house that was a walk away from the house? People would build these spring houses over a naturally occurring artesian, or underground, spring or close to running water that could be directed into the spring house. The floor was usually dirt or rock and would have a trough to collect the cold water. You submerged your items in the water using crocks.

Rock was used as rock holds cold, and during floods solid rock spring houses did not wash away. Spring houses were made with stone or brick walls and floors. Dampness rotted wood away so the bette spring houses would be built of rock. Farmers usually turned up field stones while working their fields and would collect them to use in building a spring house. Access to water usually dictated where a house and barns would be built. You didn't want to build too close to a creek or river that was prone to flooding. On the other hand, you needed to be close to water whether it was a creek, underground spring or digging a well. Hauling water is heavy work and water is so necessary in everything the farm and his family did from cooking to cleaning, taking baths, washing clothes, watering the livestock and kitchen garden.

You can imagine how labor intensive cooking could be when your kitchen only had a wood stove and a table in it. No electricity, no indoor plumbing! Getting wood from the woodshed, getting items from the root cellar and spring house, meat from the smokehouse and eggs and dairy from the hen house and barns meant leaving the house and walking to the cellars, barns and sheds to get your ingredients. Someone had to draw and carry all the water too. Now imagine having to do all that in bad weather such as snow, rain, heat! Usually jobs like these were for the children. My Dad remembers getting up with his parents, and being the youngest, he was responsible for drawing the water and bringing in the wood so his mother could get started cooking. Then he and his brother and father would take care of the livestock before eating breakfast themselves. Grandma usually did the chickens and milked the cow bringing in eggs and milk.

Notice the hollowed log being used as a pipe.

This large spring house had enough space that I would consider it the size of the largest refrigerator you buy now. LOL!

The natural fresh water springs were ideal because they kept an almost constant temperature year around of about 50-58 degrees. This was cool enough to keep foods fresh in the summer and warm enough, along with the constant flow, to keep foods and water from freezing in the winter. Spring water would hardly ever freeze over. When it did, it was not the spring that froze, but the top water that ran out into the trough or on the ground. You could break the ice and the warmer water was flowing underneath.

A small spring house would be a one room building big enough for 2 people to move around in. Larger springs houses would have 2 rooms and maybe even a 2nd floor. Larger spring houses would have a fireplace. The upstairs could be used for hired hands or tradesmen who would pass by and needed a place to stay the night. In a 2 room spring house, one room had the trough or pool of cold water and would be the coldest room. The other would be for supplies or storing some produce. Adding a fireplace would have made the 2nd room the laundry room.

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